The past is not dead; it’s not even over.
– William Faulkner
Voltaire once joked that historians are more powerful than God, ‘as even God can not change the past’. But sometimes no revisions by historians are necessary to make the world view the past differently; profoundly important public events can accomplish that directly. The great year for that was 1956, when three such events arrived. The first was the leaked ‘secret’ February speech of Nikita Krushchev to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party; the second, in October,-was the aborted British-French military intervention in Egypt, intended to protect the Suez Canal from Nasser’s new ‘pan-Arab’ nationalism; and the third, at roughly the same time, was the outbreak of revolution in Communist-controlled Hungary. All of these, surprising enough in themselves, led to the instantaneous collapse of three concepts about domestic and international politics that had held sway in all quarters since the end of the Second World War.
The intellectual disintegration of Marxism-Leninism
Krushchev was attempting a narrowly qualified admission of the terrible oppression and mass murder of the Stalin years; he thought it unavoidable in responding to the Soviet Union’s economic failures, especially in agriculture. He was also consolidating his own power against rivals like Molotov. But the publication of the speech in Western news outlets like the New York Times had a far broader worldwide impact, beginning the disintegration of the dogmatic and united edifice of Marxism-Leninisn, culminating in its total collapse just over three decades later.
As it was, his candour did not just stun his Poliburo colleagues, but Communists and fellow-travellers worldwide. They were overwhelmed by this demolition of what had been for them an unquestioning and quasi-religious faith. It was a major factor in beginning a permanent split between the Soviets and Mao’s Chinese Communists, with all the international effects that would have. It was also a devastating blow to left-wing intellectuals everywhere, suddenly forced to admit that all the criticisms from the democracies they had been indignantly rejecting for years had been valid all along. Communism would never again be the single all-embracing world-view it had been since the 1930s, and while the Cold War continued, even reaching a high point of danger in the Cuban Missile Crisis six years later, it ceased to be an entirely ‘bipolar’ contest.
The end of “Churchillism” and subordination to the US
The West had not had a comparably wide-ranging ideology, but much of the anglosphere did retain a pervasive general notion of its own, what might be called ‘Churchillism’. It consisted of a widespread faith in the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the U.S. that Churchill himself had both personified and expounded; an assumed ‘natural affinity’ and common political purpose. going far beyond collective defence through NATO. It was largely Churchill’s own romantic creation, given some reality through his powerful rhetoric and popular histories. But he had always had to paper over the fundamental clash between permanent American anti-colonialism and his own increasingly archaic and unaffordable imperialism. With the Suez Crisis, ‘Churchillism’ suffered as devastating a blow as unitary Stalinism had a few months earlier. Anthony Eden, Churchill’s wartime comrade-in-arms and friend of General Eisenhower, having at last replaced Churchill as Prime Minister in 1955, attempted a covert deal with Israel and France to stop Nasser with a swift military strike. The strike was a brief military success, but it not only brought dangerous Russian opposition, it was made without prior American approval. Eisenhower turned out to be intensely opposed to Eden’s action, demanding immediate withdrawal and even threatening economic sanctions against the intervening powers.
Eden, although he had won a 1955 election and had quite strong domestic political support, was humiliatingly forced to comply, and to end his own political career. Applying imperial prerogative of a kind taken for granted by many past British Prime Ministers, and also assuming that he was justifiably acting against a new Hitler-like dictator, he wound up instead exposing the weakness and subordination of Britain to the U. S. The Suez debacle, coming almost a decade after the end of British rule in India, became a final symbol of the Empire’s end, covered for a few more years with the ‘Commonwealth’ fig leaf. The worldwide effect, including on anglophile Canadians of the time, was rather like watching a Kiplingesque adventure suddenly turn into a sad drawing-room drama; an occasion for Lester Pearson to display his diplomatic skills in helping clean up the mess. Eden, swiftly replaced by Harold Macmillan, almost overnight went from being a famous Second World War heroic figure to appearing as a tragic and inept fool, retiring to write large memoirs that few bothered to read.
America declines help to Hungarian freedom fighters
The Hungarian Revolution was another surprise, not so much in breaking out – there had been discontented rumbles for years in Warsaw and East Berlin as well as Budapest – as in the reactions to it in both Moscow and Washington. On the Soviet side, Krushchev hesitated at first, even giving some initial indications of willingness to negotiate with the revolutionaries, but he eventually sent troops, and giant Joseph Stalin III tanks, into the Hungarian capital. As for Eisenhower, and his supposedly hawkish Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, they clearly concluded that help from them might launch a nuclear Third World War.
But the Americans had previously done no small amount to persuade East Europeans that help would soon be on the way if they set about overthrowing their Communist rulers. The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe regularly broadcast quite incendiary encouragements into the East. with some of the broadcasters themselves ex-Communist firebrands. However, when revolution actually exploded, Dulles went so far as to explicitly assure the Soviets that there would be no American intervention. Thus appeared a third kind of disillusioning surprise, this time in the discovery by both Cold War hawks and doves that the fierce popular anti-Communism of the 1950s U.S. would not necessarily be reflected in Eisenhower’s response to a genuine popular assault on a major Communist satellite regime.
Revised thinking and dangerous self-deceptions
The world thus appeared greatly changed, in retrospect as well as in present terms, by the end of 1956. People everywhere had to revise what they had thought had been happening since 1945. The Soviet Union was still menacing, but Stalinism had lost its religious vision; Britain and the U.S. patched up their split and remained NATO allies, but with the American view of decolonization thereafter in charge; American popular anti-Communism had been revealed as having little to do with ‘rolling back’ the expansion of Communism in Eastern Europe that had come out of wartime Soviet military victory and the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam Agreements.
As a rule, only such visible and unambiguous changes are grasped by the historically illiterate and by the terminally progressive, these latter more interested in constant mythic reconstructions of the past to justify new fashionable and legislative crusades. This latter approach, however, has the disadvantage that it prohibits learning anything from experience, and encourages the accumulation of dangerous self-deceptions. For those willing to learn, on the other hand, becoming familiar with the whole dance to the music of time provides the best apprenticeship in coping with the future, which will offer surprises enough.
[Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and contributor to Discourse Online. This article first appeared in the Prince Author Herald.)